LOS ANGELES -- Rick Honeycutt has stepped aside after a 14-year run as the Dodgers pitching guru, but on Aug. 29, 1987, with the club in a dogfight to stay out of last place, the Dodgers unloaded the then-struggling left-handed pitcher to the Oakland A’s for a player to be named later.
That name was Tim Belcher, and he turned out to be arguably the best PTBN in franchise history.
Although his identity wasn’t confirmed for another five days and he had yet to reach the Major Leagues, Belcher was already a controversial figure. He had been the first pick overall in the June 1983 Draft by the Minnesota Twins. But he became only the second player in Draft history to be picked first overall and not sign when he turned down Minnesota’s $120,500 offer and went back to school.
That made him eligible for the since-eliminated secondary phase draft, when the New York Yankees again made him the first player picked and signed him to a $175,000 bonus. A procedural goof by Yankees management left Belcher unprotected and, within a few days, he was selected by the A’s as compensation for losing Class A free-agent pitcher Tom Underwood.
Despite unquestioned talent, Belcher had been troubled by a sore arm in 1986 and wild arm in '87. At the time of the trade, Belcher was 9-11 with a 4.42 ERA for Triple-A Tacoma, allowing a staggering 133 walks with 136 strikeouts in 163 innings over 29 games (28 starts). He'd spent most of the previous season resting a sore shoulder (bone spur and slight labrum tear), pitching only 37 innings at Double-A Huntsville.
For the Dodgers, 1986-87 were back-to-back, second-division finishes. After coming in fifth place in '86, on Opening Day of '87 general manager Al Campanis made his infamous "Nightline" statements and was soon fired. Fred Claire took over, inheriting a thin roster and barren farm system.
Claire made a blockbuster Winter Meetings trade in December -- adding Alfredo Griffin, Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco -- that would rightfully be credited as key to the 1988 world championship. The Honeycutt-Belcher deal would help both teams get to the World Series the next year, but at the time seemed like a traditional white-flag attempt by the Dodgers to move an older player and salary to a contender for a semi-prospect needing a fresh start.
Honeycutt had a 1.31 ERA through mid-May, but tried to pitch with a balky shoulder, was dropped from the rotation in late July and had an 11-game losing streak at the time of the trade. Belcher’s stock had fallen, but at the time the A’s wouldn’t give up Claire’s primary targets -- Griffin or Minor Leaguer Walt Weiss -- for Honeycutt.
In Josh Suchon’s book about the 1988 Dodgers, “Miracle Men,” Claire said the Dodgers scouted Belcher’s last six or seven starts at Triple-A, which included one in which an enraged Belcher was yanked and then beat up a trash can with a bat.
“In all the reports I got, I thought, 'We have to get this guy,'” Claire told Suchon. “He had a great delivery, great body, great makeup. I was about as happy as you could be when we traded Honeycutt, with all due respect.”
The Dodgers brought Belcher directly to the Major Leagues and his wildness magically vanished. He made five starts, went 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA and walked only seven in 34 innings. What happened?
Belcher said he had a revelation on his flight to Los Angeles to join the Dodgers.
“You’re 26 years old. You’ve gone from prospect to suspect and now back to prospect,” Belcher said. “I was smart enough to realize the only reason I hadn’t gotten called up to the big leagues from Oakland was that very fact -- I was walking too many people. You know what, I’m going to L.A. They’re out of it. They’re going to pitch me all of September. I’ve got to throw the ball over the plate. Even if everything I throw goes off the wall or over the wall, I have to throw strikes.”
Having passed the September “tryout” and posting a solid Spring Training, Belcher moved into the 1988 starting rotation by mid-April. Overshadowed in Orel Hershiser’s record-breaking Cy Young season, Belcher went 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA during the regular season and was The Sporting News National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. He then won both starts against the Mets in the NL Championship Series.
With Hershiser having pitched Game 7 of the NLCS, Belcher inherited the Game 1 World Series start against his former Oakland club and Dave Stewart, one of the pitchers the Dodgers traded in 1983 to get Honeycutt. Belcher rebounded from Jose Canseco’s second-inning grand slam in his Game 1 start (won by Kirk Gibson’s legendary homer) to outpitch 21-game winner Stewart in a Game 4 victory.
Belcher went on to fire an MLB-leading eight shutouts and win 15 games in 1989. But he was one game over .500 the next two seasons, and ultimately was traded with John Wetteland to the Reds for Eric Davis and Kip Gross after the '91 season. He would pitch nine more Major League seasons and finish his career with 146 wins. Today, Belcher is a special assistant to baseball operations for the Cleveland Indians.